Why Austin Needs a New City Plan
Since posting my letter welcoming newcomers to Austin last week, I’ve thought a lot about what this future of Austin, which newcomers will help co-create, looks like. I realized that so much of this future rides on our city government and City Council, which likely got a little less willing to do the work needed after losing Jimmy Flannigan In District 6.
For starters, I believe the city should create a brand new vision and plan for the city both to speak to the future it envisions for itself, the realities of today that hint at the eventualities of tomorrow should we stay on our current course, and to address some of the categorically terrible decisions Austin’s government has made over the last century.
The Imagine Austin vision for Austin’s future was very well-intentioned I admit, but — even less than a decade since its adoption in 2012 — feels entirely outdated and is very obviously underperforming against the realities experienced by the majority of Austin residents.
“Austin is a beacon of sustainability, social equity, and economic opportunity; where diversity and creativity are celebrated; where communities needs and values are recognized; where leadership comes from its citizens, and where the necessities of life are affordable and accessible to all.”
With the possible exception of households in Austin making over $200,000 a year or in neighborhoods where the average home price is north of $700,000, I truly can’t see anyone reading this vision and nodding their head in anything close to full approval. I would personally score Austin at a B-minus on its performance of this vision since 2012. Since 2012, Austin has underperformed on matters of social equity (clear racism within our police department), economic opportunity (fast-growing income inequality), diversity and creativity (where both Black/Latino residents and artists/musicians are being priced out and shown the door), community needs (see: East Austin gentrification), and affordability and accessibility (see: homelessness and the lack of zoning changes to introduce some much-needed housing types).
Let’s not mince words here. Austin needs a City Plan of 2028.
If humans are still on Earth In 2128, I’m hopeful this distant future doesn’t reflect as nearly as poorly upon the City Plan of 2028 as we do for Austin’s City Plan of 1928, which sought nice-sounding things like walkable streets and public utility affordability and access, but also codified the racism, segregation and inequitable zoning practices that still malign our growing city today.
In thinking about what should make up this City Plan of 2028, I’ve taken stock of several contributing factors. I’ve considered what Austin’s government is well equipped to do today vs. what it should be good at in the future, what Austin’s residents would want today vs. need over time (assuming a City Plan of 2028 would need to be foundational for at least the next 50 years if not a full century), and what conditions are likely to exist in Austin should we not take proactive steps today to ensure the course we’re on is one that allows the city to continue its growth while not forfeiting the core values I shared in my open letter.
I would structure the City Plan of 2028 as follows:
1. Establishing & Affirming the City’s Core Values
Currently, the City’s “official” values are as follows: Public Service and Engagement; Responsibility and Accountability; Innovation and Sustainability; Diversity & Inclusion; and Ethics & Integrity. And, in my letter, I spoke instead to the real values that someone feels and experiences when they’re living in Austin. Buy Local First; Live Here, Give Here; and Authenticity (aka “You can flake, but don’t be a fake”).
Now, for the City Plan of 2028, I would combine the spirit of what I shared in the letter with the intent of what the City has listed in Imagine Austin to present these as Austin’s bonafide values:
Empathy: This would mean going beyond statements on websites and on the campaign trail to truly enact policies that ensure we are considering our residents’ lives and collective interest, not just the neighborhoods that have reliable voters. My mom raised three boys on her own and often relied on government assistance to do so. If we were ever to find ourselves homeless, I pray to have lived in a city that doesn’t think a campaign ban without any long-term housing is a solution.
Accountability to Access: This is intended to ensure all of the City of Austin’s policies are set forth in the spirit of increasing access to the City’s resources in the long-term rather than being accountable only to the short-term needs of a particular group. In making zoning changes, Austin should prioritize accessibility to all of the residents to a city resource over the needs of one neighborhood that has been unfairly favored through racism.
Systemic Sustainability: Not only encapsulating the key environmental policies needed as the impact of climate change becomes more pressing globally and locally, but also including the types of regulations and restrictions that would give small, local businesses at least equal, if not better, odds at success in our city as corporate chains that come to Austin leverage unfair funding advantages that further exacerbates issues of inequity. When corporate food chains get more PPP money than local restaurants, our city should do something to prevent this from negatively impacting our city’s values and penchant for local.
Intersectional Justice: When justice is intersectional it doesn’t just show up in lower occurrences of racial profiling in East Austin or fewer Black and Hispanic families living west of I-35, it also shows up in our public school funding, our public parks and our city grant application processes that bake equity and justice into decisions. When one part of an Austin high school feels like a magnet school and the other feels like an underfunded public school, we should understand that that has unfortunate outcomes both in how our values show up and how our residents are well-prepared or totally unprepared for the future of work.
Authentic Stewardship: We can use words like integrity and ethics and transparency all we want, but they ring hollow if Austin residents don’t come to find their interactions with their government — from the planning department to the promises of elected officials — to be genuine, forthright and thoughtful. Jimmy Flannigan may have just lost his seat in District 6, but his Republican successor must still act in accordance with our city’s value or they can not ever expect to earn the trust of constituents whom need real action and leadership not just retweets and platitudes that work in an election year.
2. Rectifying the City Plan of 1928 aka Foundational Fixes
We cannot go forward with a City Plan without first going back to ensure we have learned the lessons — both good and bad — from the past City Plans. Just as our pandemic response should’ve been led by science and medical professionals, comprehensive government planning should be led by research and facts found in the lived experiences and realities of residents; we must use the data from the past to rectify issues that could hinder our future whether we’re comfortable with what the past says or not. Constantly reading articles about how I-35 forced segregation on Black residents of Austin and then continuing, over and over, to enact land development and zoning conditions that magnify rather than mitigate that decades-long damage, doesn’t work.
The City Plan of 2028 cannot be effective without fully acknowledging and rectifying the mistakes of the past comprehensive plans set forth by the City of Austin, which I call “Foundational Fixes.” Either we fix them now or we watch the city fall under the shoddy construction of this figurative basement.
Austin has grown into quite the major city, but even as we build higher and higher Downtown, there are cracks in the foundation of this city that could destroy our collective ability to survive and thrive here. These cracks exist despite a well-publicized notion that Austin can keep growing and growing and we’ll somehow still be able to be a city for all that is affordable and fosters creativity and inclusivity and breeds innovation that is equitable not elitist. Prop A, the light rail and public transit bond that just passed in November, was only about 20 years too late to truly address the affordability and accessibility issues of today, and we must not let this type of inaction and latency present more harm to the city on other critical issues. And, as someone in tech, I champion the people moving here from SF and other metros to be a part of Austin’s tech ecosystem, but not at the expense of the people who’ve built the music scene or other aspects of our city that are integral to this city’s enduring quality of life.
From the growing lack of affordable housing to the racist policing of Black and Latino communities to the segregated arrangements of Austin’s parks and public spaces where everything from the Austin Public Library to Trail of Lights to the Capitol 10K and Austin Marathon races are west of I-35, it’s clear that the vast majority of foundational fixes are along socio-economic lines.
That said, the only way to truly address these issues is by creating a true accounting of the financial consequences of the mistakes associated with the City Plan of 1928. How much generational wealth did the City of Austin remove from our Black communities by instituting such a racist comprehensive plan? How many Hispanic families have been held back from full and equal access to the City due to policies that protect majority-white housing districts and streets vs. majority-Hispanic housing districts and streets in the city plans and amendments of the 50s and 60s or even the 80s and 90s?
Now, let me be very specific here, I’m not talking about reparations, I’m talking about rectification. Reparations, I believe, should be actively pursued through a careful accounting, commission and fund disbursement strategy laid out by the federal government. This is clear to me given the Constitutional, financial, genealogical, moral and social implications that go far beyond one city or even one state when it comes to slavery, the Jim Crow Era and institutional racism that has constituted America’s grand scheme to put the median net worth of a Black family at 1/10th of white families ($17,100 vs. $171,000), created a racial wealth gap of $10.14 trillion for Black Americans, and fostered conditions that have yielded 3.5% of all household wealth in the United States to the wealthier 400 billionaires vs. just 3% for all Black households combined.
Rectification, in my opinion, is much more addressable both fiscally and morally at the local level. A Commission on Racial and Socio-Economic Rectification could be constituted in 2023 with a four-year lifecycle (presenting its recommendations to the City by Spring 2027) and consist of academics, community activists, creatives, economists, entrepreneurs, political leaders, and other key stakeholders with the expressed intent of a) presenting a meaningful (using the rubric of “the best publicly-available methodology within a given time period ”) accounting of the economic, fiscal and social consequences of the mistakes of the City Plan of 1928 along racial and socio-economic lines and b) presenting a fund creation and disbursement strategy for the City of Austin to both accumulate and allocate said funds over the lifecycle of the City Plan of 2028 (including the necessary bylaws and city charter amendments needed to ensure its full and fair execution over the term of the plan).
When the NBA’s last collective bargaining agreement was set to renew a few years ago, there was a significant increase in the salary cap, and as a result the financial outlay, available to each of the league’s teams. While the NBA sought to spread this money out over time, say 5 years, the NBA Player’s Association, the union representing players, decided it best to simply allocate all of the “excess” capital to players available in free agency that year alone. The consequences were that players eligible for free agency, say 20 percent of the league’s players, got to get 100% of the capital that should have instead been spread over many years that would have been more equitable toward every member of the union. It was a rare mistake on the part of the NBA Player’s Association in recent history, and one that Austin must not make with rectification.
You cannot fix the problems of the City Plan of 1928 solely with monies in hand by 2028. No, a decades-long, possibly century-long, fund must be set up to ensure generationally harmful policies are met with generationally-codified solutions.
3. Setting (and Funding) the City Plan of 2028 Priorities
While the Commission is working on the above issues, the City Council should embark upon a citizen-led initiative to rank a set of priorities I believe are mission critical to fostering smart growth, protecting our collective values, and setting the city up for a full century of success. These priorities are as follows, with no particular ranking (this should be done by the community at large).
Social Equity & Inclusion: Is Austin equitable across all demographics and socio-economic levels? Are our laws and policies creating more equitable conditions than have been provided in years/decades past?
Entrepreneurship & Innovation: Is Austin fostering local business creation and retention or are we accommodating corporations? Are we finding ways to encourage innovation that espouses or city’s values or are we creating deeper divisions?
Housing Affordability: Is Austin building and/or supporting development of the right mix of housing options and inventory or are we over-compensating for a small subset of homeowner or neighborhood types?
Nightlife, events and entertainment: Are we a city that is more or less safe / equitable / interesting / inclusive at night or during large-scale events or are we a city that allows nightlife, events and entertainment to incubate less integration of our residents?
Parks and public spaces: Do our public parks and spaces create environments that are conducive to positive interactions amongst our residents of all backgrounds or are spaces exacerbating the negative experiential and/or economic conditions that have hindered deeper community bonds?
Integration & Belonging: Does our city enact policies, regulations and zoning laws that make integration and belonging the eventuality or does our city enforce conditions that would lead to silos and divides that break down the opportunity for genuine connection?
Heritage community businesses: Can Austin play an active role in protecting, and in some cases incentivizing, Black and Hispanic-owned businesses — from restaurants and music venues — or are we creating dynamics that would remove these communities and their heritage from our City’s future?
Education and workforce development: How does Austin proactively address the needs of our industries and ensure future job creation by creating a framework for lifelong learning that is publicly available and not dependent solely upon economic wherewithal or industry trends?
Walkability, neighborhoods & public transit: Are we setting forth city planning, funding and zoning policies that make the City’s benefits and resources more accessible on foot and via public transit while increasing the sustainability and vitality of neighborhoods?
The arts, creativity and culture: Do we have the right funding and cultural assets that our residents need, and are we rightfully addressing and protecting the unique cultural value creative professionals bring to our city in the long term?
These priorities need to be re-ranked every decade as part of the ongoing review plan for the City Plan of 2028. I would recommend a bond initiative be tied to this ranking — done by vote in the first citywide election after each Census — giving Austinites a funding source and major influence over which issues are most pressing and worthy of outlay. The funds could be largely set by the City Council (up to an 90% funding level for each area) with the remaining 10% being based on the voting results. In the instance of police funding, for example, Austin voters may desire a 10% reduction in the Police Department’s budget but an 8% increase in the Health Department’s budget and a 5% increase in the Parks & Recs budget, but the police department would only see its budget decrease more than 10% if the City Council’s budgeting process (which would control 90% of their annual funding) also yielded in diminished funds in addition to the resident-dependent vote. This gives long-time residents influence on a decade-to-decade basis while also helping them retain their annual influence over the City’s funds through City Council elections.
4. Communicating Progress & Gathering Feedback from the City
Doing the work is actually no longer enough for governments because it’s too easy to call inaction “work” as evidenced by our U.S. Senate and the lack of another pandemic stimulus to support small businesses and working class Americans.
Governments aren’t responsible to themselves — or the small factions that are deeply involved in the government’s business (often times to protect their own interests) — but to their constituents and residents at large. This is why communication is such a critical part of any City Plan. The average Austinite doesn’t know about Imagine Austin and the newcomer — the person whose first election in Austin will likely be in 2022 or 2024 — definitely doesn’t have a clue about Imagine Austin. The same should not be true for the City Plan of 2028. This plan needs to be as known locally as the New Deal was in FDR’s Administration or Austin’s moniker as “the Live Music Capital of the World.”
The City Plan of 2028 isn’t just a comprehensive plan but a statement from Austin to both locals the the world. The statement and work can’t live in secret and the progress can’t be reported and tracked largely in private. The accountability needed to ensure the City Plan of 2028 is effective will require a level of community engagement, voter participation and collaborative commitment that is more common in other parts of the world than here in the U.S.
Austin has this goal of being the most livable city in America and that can only happen if the people living in this city are in a routine dialogue — through community discussion, elections and online engagement that should become a framework for Austin’s government — with the people making decisions about the city.
Mayor Adler, like other mayors in years past, provides a “State of the City” each year; but I would recommend a much more holistic approach to reporting progress. Each year, a City Plan review document should be published and publicized that offers an assessment of the year by an independent think tank, tasked by City Council, that each resident receives in their email inbox, mailbox, with key findings and learnings via billboards and/or on a series of televised livestreams in late January of each year.
Simultaneously, at least 1,000 anonymous residents in each Council district should be surveyed each year after this report is provided and up to 30 to 40 residents from each district should be brought into focus groups each year for the first decade of the City Plan of 2028 to gather feedback and provide the City with recommendations on how to best keep residents informed of the City’s actions and progress along the tenets of the City Plan of 2028 until at least 2038, with the option to maintain this feedback process for the lifecycle of the City Plan, in order to ensure feedback isn’t solely rooted in which constituents show up to City Council meetings, which neighborhoods have the loudest voices or which special interest groups have the most money to spend.
I can spend hours on a Saturday morning and afternoon thinking about the City of Austin and how I’d love the government to operate because I love this city, I believe in this City’s ability to change for the better over time (rather than simply trying to hang on to someone’s idea of “the glory days” of years past), and perhaps most of all, I believe that us residents — regardless of neighborhood, tax bracket or title — should be as eager to be heard as the people speaking from the dais at Council meetings.